The Assassins' Gate
George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate is a narrative of the causes and consequences of American involvement in Iraq in the early twenty-first century. A self-described liberal, the author had supported the Iraq War at its inception, but as years went by and the quest for security and order made little progress, Packer’s confidence in the outcome has waned considerably.
When Packer first glimpsed Baghdad’s so-called Assassins’ Gate in 2003, he believed that it was an ancient gate which had guarded the city during the era of the Ottoman caliphs. Like much else in Iraq, views could be misleading, for the country’s deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein, had constructed the gate. American troops nicknamed the structure, which leads to the former dictator’s palace at the center of the Green Zone, the “assassins’ gate.” From the Green Zone, the American-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) governed the country, and Iraqis assembled at the gate, requesting assistance and demanding redress, as under the caliphs of old.
The author’s interest in Iraq goes back to the first Gulf War. In the early 1990’s, Packer became acquainted with Kanan Makiya, an idealistic Iraqi exile who envisioned an Iraq committed to Western concepts of natural rights. Others also had plans for Iraq, including members of the George H. W. Bush administration (1989-1993). In the aftermath of the Cold War, some foreign policy planners, known as neoconservatives, advocated an American foreign policy based upon United States power, unfettered by either allies or international organizations such as the United Nations. For many neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, the justification for such a policy was not merely that American power should lead the world but also that the world should be remodeled on the American paradigm of democratic capitalism. In 1997, several future members of the George W. Bush administration, including Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which was committed to regime change in Iraq.
Like many liberals remembering the Vietnam imbroglio, Packer had opposed the Gulf War, but images of Kuwaitis embracing American troops converted some liberals such as him into believing that American military power could be a force for establishing and protecting human rights. Genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda seemed to prove that the United Nations was unable to cope with such disasters and that Security Council resolutions were ineffective, as many conservatives had argued.
The terrorist attacks on U.S. soil of September 11, 2001, changed everything. Many in the Bush administration immediately assumed that Osama bin Laden had enjoyed the support of Iraq’s Hussein in carrying out the attack. Before September 11, the president showed little interest in regime change in Iraq; after September 11 it became the focus of his foreign policy. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were committed more to toppling Hussein than to establishing a democratic Iraq. By early 2002, the administration had decided upon another Iraq war.
Packer likens the question of why the war was begun to the Japanese film Rashomon (1950), the different interpretations of which depend upon the viewer. Some argued that Hussein had given support to al-Qaeda. Others asserted that the Arab Muslim world had failed as a society and needed to be modernized by the West. The specific justification for the war was the claim that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Only later, when no WMDs were discovered in Iraq, did Bush justify the war as a means to make Iraq safe for democracy.
While Rumsfeld and Cheney prepared for war, the State Department established the Future of Iraq Project, where Kanan Makiya became a major ideological force in his advocacy of a democratic Iraq that transcended ethnic and religious differences. Rumsfeld and Cheney assumed that the war would be quick, as it was, and that a reformed Iraq security force would quickly replace American troops, allowing an early United States exit. There were no concerted plans for a long-term occupation. Packer only briefly, and unsympathetically, discusses the opposition to the Iraq War. He notes its essentially moral base, which he claims would merely enforce the status quo in Iraq, leaving Hussein in power. Arguing that the antiwar movement was more oriented toward what Americans wanted rather than what Iraqis might want, Packer notes that many Iraqis desired to be free of Hussein’s repression, even at the cost of war.
While much of The Assassins’...
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